BUFFALO — The other day at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit a ball over the left field fence, over the bullpen that sits beyond it, over the large billboards situated above that, and into a parking lot some 450-feet away, Bobby Meacham thought of Steve Balboni.
See, Meacham and Balboni played at that triple-A park back in the 1980’s, when they were both in the New York Yankees system. Meacham was a wiry shortstop who’d eventually reach the majors thanks to his defence. Balboni was a thick first baseman who reached the majors because he hit some absolute bombs. When Guerrero hit his Wednesday, Meacham’s mind immediately flashed to one Balboni hit over the same wall.
“Balboni hit that one so far I had to actually get up out of my seat in the dugout and look up to see where it was going,” Meacham remembers, sitting in his office at Sahlen Field where he’s now Guerrero’s manager with the Buffalo Bisons. “It went way over the scoreboard. So, I thought, [Guerrero’s homer] is pretty good. But I saw Bonesy hit one farther than that.”
Meacham’s seen an awful lot. It’s what makes him a great minor-league manager, and one of the most influential voices the Blue Jays will hear from when it comes time to make a decision on promoting Guerrero to the majors. That decision is likely coming within days. Guerrero’s bat was major-league at this time last year, and he’s made strong strides in his defence and routines over the time since, two areas of particular concern for the club.
His footwork and first-step reactions at third base have improved, perhaps not enormously, but a respectable amount for a player whose body composition will almost certainly force him to the opposite infield corner before long. He’s lost 10 pounds and taken better care with his pre- and post-game conditioning since suffering a Grade 1 oblique strain this spring. He’s made measurable steps towards achieving the objectives the Blue Jays have set for him over the last several months, while the club slowly gained the contractual benefit of delaying the start of Guerrero’s major-league service clock in the meantime.
So, when is enough, enough? When does this uncommon young talent satisfy the many criteria the Blue Jays are awaiting before promoting him to the majors? When is Guerrero ready?
“It’s tough — it’s tough to figure out,” Meacham admits. “It’s one of those things where you try to feel around, and use your own experiences, and hopefully that wisdom rises.”
The experiences Meacham relies on go all the way back to when he was a minor-leaguer watching Balboni hit that bomb. Meacham remembers being in his first big-league camp with the Yankees and thinking he was much more talented than the infielders ahead of him on the club’s depth chart. But those infielders all had numerous years of experience in the majors. It’s exactly the scenario Guerrero was in with the Blue Jays this spring.
“I’m thinking, ‘How did this guy spend six, eight years in the big leagues? It couldn’t have been because he had more ability than somebody like myself,’” Meacham says. “It was because of what they knew already. What they’d experienced. How they dealt with everything. It’s more than just knowledge. It’s wisdom. And that comes from experiences and circumstances.”
Here’s one of those experiences — one of those circumstances. A week ago, during his first triple-A game this season, Guerrero crushed an RBI double to centre and immediately pulled off a delayed steal of third without a throw. The opposition’s third baseman was caught so off guard he barely moved.
What made the play so effective was the defence was playing an aggressive shift on a left-handed hitter, which pulled the third baseman off the line. It’s a situation Meacham had run through during spring training with a group of Blue Jays minor-leaguers ticketed for Buffalo, including Guerrero. Meacham had them all work on it a few times, and gave the players the green light to run if the circumstance ever presented itself in Buffalo.
Through the Bisons’ first 13 games, the opportunity was there a number of times. But no one even tried to pull it off until Guerrero. And this was in only his second triple-A plate appearance this season.
“That’s when somebody’s listening, watching, paying attention — and not afraid to go ahead and do it,” Meacham says. “That adds up into when you think a guy can be ready.
“When are they ready? When you tell them something and they’ve already experienced it — so, it clicks. Sometimes you tell guys something five, six times, and they don’t get it. But seven, eight, nine, they start to really get it. When you know that they’ve heard it enough, or they’ve experienced it enough, or they’ve paid attention enough, to where you tell them one more time and something clicks, you know they’re ready for that baserunning situation.”
Meacham tells another Guerrero story, but this one’s not flattering. It was back in Dunedin this spring and Guerrero was playing in a minor-league game, one of his first back in uniform after the oblique injury. He took one of his aggressive, vigorous swings at a hittable pitch and popped it straight up.
Frustrated with himself, Guerrero loafed it up the line rather than hustling to first base in the unlikely event the ball was dropped. Meacham was all over him.
“I get it. He was coming off his injury and he just wanted to be playing like normal — hitting every ball hard and getting ready for a season,” Meacham says. “He knew we were breaking camp soon and it’s almost like an opportunity to show that he’s ready. And now he pops up a couple pitches and he’s got to stay down there in Florida. I get it. But it doesn’t matter. I get your frustration. But I don’t care. You’ve got to run.”
That’s the kind of tendency Guerrero can’t carry to the majors. Even moreso, it’s the type of attitude. That’s because Guerrero will surely fail at some point. He’s going to face adversity. So far, he’s treated minor-league pitching like he’s playing a video game. But the list of players who have been able to do that in the majors is extremely brief.
And when Guerrero inevitably experiences extended failure at the major-league level, when he isn’t seeing the results he knows he can produce, he can’t let it affect other parts of his game like it did that day in Florida.
“I tell guys all the time, you can’t go up there and say, ‘Man, I know I should’ve been in this spot but I wasn’t on the cut-off for the relay,’” Meacham says. “You can’t do that up there.”
That’s what held Meacham down in the minors watching Balboni hit bombs for all those years while players he felt he was more talented than played for the Yankees. Sheer experience.
And that’s the catch-22 with Guerrero. At this stage in his career, in his life, there’s no way for him to have accumulated enough experience. He’s 20 years old. He’s played fewer than 300 minor-league games. But he’s undoubtedly talented enough to succeed in the majors today. So, what can Guerrero do?
“You just keep trying to put up numbers and make everybody’s decision harder — press them to decide whether you’re ready for the big leagues or not. And that’s what he’s doing,” Meacham says. “The key isn’t having that talent. The key is it translating and being substantial enough to carry you through the lows that they go through up there in the big leagues. It’s a different animal in the big leagues. It’s not the talent level that I’m considering. It’s an ‘is he ready’ issue. Because we would rather he stay there than have to come back.”